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July 19, 2006John Cohen didn't take long to lift Kentucky's stagnant baseball program into the national elite. Now UK is rewarding the third-year coach with a hefty new contract that shows a commitment to keeping the Cats at that level.
The university announced Cohen signed a five-year contract worth approximately $295,000 annually on Wednesday. The deal will keep him at UK through the 2011 season. UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart handsomely rewarded Cohen for leading UK to its first Southeastern Conference championship in 2006.
"We're awfully glad to be able to put together a new contract and relationship with the Cohen family to keep them in Lexington for the next five years and a lot longer we hope," Barnhart said. "What they've done is unbelievably remarkable over the last three years to take a program that was struggling and had never won the SEC and go worst-to-first. It's been a remarkable run and an awful lot of fun.
"John Cohen is exactly the type of individual we want leading our athletic programs at Kentucky," Barnhart said. "John is a champion. His energy, enthusiasm, work ethic and vision have produced results in a relatively short period of time. I'm convinced that the success our baseball team enjoyed this past season is a sign of things to come."
After taking over a struggling program, Cohen took just three seasons to raise UK into the national conscious. UK zoomed from after thought to the top of the SEC this season, finishing with a school-record 44 victories and a NCAA Tournament berth. In hosting a NCAA regional, UK averaged 3,270 fans in cozy Cliff Hagan Stadium.
"This is not the end of something, it's the beginning of something," Cohen promised. "This is a great start for our program, but we want this to continue and get even better. Life is a series of opportunities. The opportunity I was given three years ago, I can't thank (UK) enough.
"I put incredible pressure on myself and I try to raise the level of expectation of our players all the time. In doing that you go to sleep at night saying you didn't do everything you could do that day. To be as great as you can be those are things that go with it. Every single day is a win or a loss. I love the competition. Long story short, I don't think the competitive side changes regardless of the contract."
Cohen's arrival at UK touched off a resurgence and passion around baseball in Lexington. The Cats' crowds grew as the season went along, setting records for attendance as UK piled up victories. Thanks to the unexpected success of the season, rumors swirled as Cohen's name was mentioned as a candidate for several high-profile openings, including at LSU. Cohen said there was no "direct contact" between LSU and himself but refused to deny he was contacted informally. LSU ended up hiring former Notre Dame coach Paul Manieri, paying him just a shade over $400,000 a year.
The contract Cohen signed Tuesday calls him to make $180,000 in base pay next season, followed by a $10,000 raise each additional year through 2011. He also receives $95,000 annually for radio, TV and other endorsement deals. Other incentives round out the package. If UK fires Cohen for performance reasons he is owed whatever is left on his contract at the time.
UK certainly doesn't expect that to happen. In addition to bringing Cohen closer to the middle of the financial pack in the SEC - last year's average salary was around $250,000 - the school also boosted the packages of Cohen's assistants. The athletics department is also looking a ways to advance the program through a facilities upgrade, which could lead to a new stadium in the future. For now, the plan is for a new scoreboard, complete with a video board, to be in place by next season and possibly additional seating down the left field line.
"There were some changes and I think the administration really showed our staff the same commitment they showed me," Cohen said. "It's not just about the financial, it's about the little things too.
"I didn't have to ask for those things, Mitch Barnhart wants those things. Mitch is all about making things better for everybody all the time. He sees that as one of the issues that confronts us. We are constantly doing things to make our facility better. I'm excited about that part. There are some things on the horizon that are really exciting. They are not on paper yet, but we have a strong belief they are going to happen in a reasonable amount of time."
Given how quickly Cohen has raised the level of the program, that might not be long at all.